Reading Louis Althusser is always a complicated task. Not only because of the complexity of his writings (which take the form of premises without conclusions, as well as conclusions without premises) but also due to the peculiar nature of his texts. Althusser never wrote books (with only one exception); he wrote philosophical interventions in the field of politics, and political interventions in the field of philosophy. This is a very peculiar aspect of his thinking and, consequently, of his writings.

Althusser’s philosophical project was one of the most ambitious philosophical enterprises of the previous century in the field of Marxism. The publication of his monumental For Marx and his collaborative book with his students, Reading Capital, constituted an unprecedented development on the French philosophical scene, as well as in Marxist philosophy and Marxist theory in general. These two books inaugurated a new period in reading and understanding Marx, the reverberations of which persist in contemporary discussions.

Althusser’s work marked an emphatic break with the previous traditional reading of Marx, as well as with Marxist orthodoxy, which dominated Marxist movements and especially the French Communist Party, in which Althusser sought to intervene politically by means of philosophy. The effects of a philosophical intervention all too often exceed the intentions of the philosopher. This was the case with Althusser. His ambitions, as elaborated especially in the works mentioned above, were twofold: political and philosophical. Philosophically, Althusser wanted to liberate Marxism from its deviations (humanism, economism, empiricism, dogmatism, et cetera), which, in the last instance, meant constructing Marxism devoid of Hegelian content or elements. At the political level, the problem concerned communist militancy, which, if not conditioned by, was certainly related to the deviations in philosophy.

According to Althusser, philosophy exists only through occupying territories, conquering positions in the field that is always-already occupied by an adversary. Occupying a philosophical position means, at the same time, drawing lines of demarcation from the other philosophical positions that operate within a thick field of philosophical battles. This thesis holds true not only for Althusser, but also for a large part of the French philosophy whose aim, beginning in the 1960s onwards, was an attempt to demarcate itself from Hegel. Philosophers as different as Althusser, Deleuze, Derrida and others, who, indeed, hardly have any similarities in their respective philosophical projects, felt the need to distance their systems from that of Hegel. This demarcation was not only against one particular philosophical adversary; in their view, Hegel was the encapsulation of the philosophical system that had to be opposed.

It is important to recall Deleuze, who made the rather infamous call to ‘forget Hegel’, thereby suggesting that the greatest philosophical misfortune is embodied in the name Hegel. In fact, he went as far as to say that “what I most detested was Hegelianism and dialectics.”[1] Derrida argued that Hegel’s Logic was “theology of the absolute concept as logos.”[2] Against Hegel’s monstrosity, some of these and other philosophers took refuge, as it were, in Spinoza.[3] Althusser, who at the young age devoted a long study to Hegel, in his doctoral defense, declared: “I have turned the weapon of Spinoza against Hegel.”[4] I have discussed this elsewhere, but I believe it is important to emphasize one dimension of Althusser’s anti-Hegelianism.[5]

Becoming aware of the weakness and insufficiency of the epistemological foundations for his project, Althusser turned to outlining the ontological presuppositions for reading Marx. He supposed Spinozism to be a way to criticize the weak theory of negativity in Hegel, a theory which gave rise to an unthought ideological concept of subject. But the ontology he needed when he fully developed his critique was not the one that allowed him to start his critique. The paradox is that the ontological commitments of Althusser’s epistemological positions are different from, or critical of, the ontology he thought he was agreeing with.

Althusser’s position can be summed up as follows. In his analysis of social formation, history and politics, Marx’s true predecessor is not Hegel’s dialectical method, which was saturated with metaphysics and idealism, as well as with a teleological conception and understanding of history. It was Spinoza’s monism, which according to Althusser was the genuine ancestor of Marx’s work. According to this line of thought, against Hegel’s monstrosity, Spinoza is the anti-teleological and materialist thinker, who resonates very closely with Marx’s work, and, especially, with his ‘mature’ writings. In other words, in this approach, the philosophical foundations that permit us fully to understand Marx are those of Spinoza’s materialism.

Althusser’s work opened up new horizons of thinking, posed new questions, and conceptualized new problematics. Because of his very innovative, transformative and profound reading of Marx, the 1960’s in France can be rightly labelled as Althusserian years in Marxism, philosophy, and radical politics.

Perhaps the most pressing issue with regard to the contemporary reading (and, to be sure, there is an abundance of excellent scholarship in the very recent revival of Althusser’s work) consists in the ground, upon which this reading is commenced.

In the last few years, many of Althusser’s previously unpublished writings were published in French and then translated into other languages.[6] One of them is History and Imperialism: Writings, 1963-1986[7], which is a very interesting period of his thinking. This is the period of the transition to and inauguration of aleatory materialism, which, in scope and aim, is as ambitious as the period, which culminated with For Marx and Reading Capital. It is in the spirit of these two books that one should read the other two volumes, Philosophy for Non-Philosophers[8] and How to be a Marxist in Philosophy,[9] both published in English almost at the same time, but written in 1976 and 1978. Although they seem to belong to the period of his thinking known as “the materialism of the encounter”, I think these texts should be read in the light of his early work.

Let’s go to the crux of the matter. Althusser’s engagement with Hegel is so fascinating, not so much for its direct outcome, but for its very opposite: the failure of its initial aim. In fact, at a certain level of analysis, his ‘heroic’ attempt to de-couple Marx from Hegel provided the ground for a very peculiar understanding of Marx.[10]

The question of what Marx has adapted from Hegel and what was his own invention was elevated to a philosophical problematic, beginning with Marx himself, who (in his late period) discusses Hegel at least in three places. However, in a letter to Friedrich Engels from January 1858, which was a period when he was in the midst of his studies on political economy that would result in Capital, Marx mentions reading Hegel’s Logic:

“By the way, I am discovering some nice arguments. For instance, I have overthrown the whole doctrine of profit as it existed up to now. The fact that by mere accident I again glanced through Hegel’s Logic [. . .] has been of great service to me as regards the method of dealing with the material.”[11]

And then he continues with what became a matter of various philosophical exercises ever since:

“If ever the time comes when such work is again possible, I should very much like to write 2 or 3 sheets making accessible to the common reader the rational aspect of the method, which Hegel not only discovered but also mystified.”[12]

One can look for the substitutes of these pages in Marx’s letters to Engels, or to Ludwig Kugelmann, the introduction to Grundrisse, or the preface to the second edition of Capital, all of which differ quite significantly from his earlier discussions of Hegel. Although this is instructive at the level of intellectual history, the philosophical significance of it might not be the same. For instance, reading the famous chapter on the transformation of money into capital (and this is just one example), the references to Hegel (as well as to Christianity) are explicit.

Yet, rather than following the traces of Hegel’s influence on Marx, or the latter’s “inversion” of Hegelianism, I will propose to take a different direction. Slavoj Žižek asserts that the relation of Marx’s critique of political economy to philosophy constitutes an element of Marx’s fundamental constitutive ‘uneasiness.’ In addition, there is another dimension in Marx’s work: the relation between the critique of political economy and political novelty. Or, as Žižek argues, the ultimate Marxian parallax is constituted by the critique of political economy and of politics. The parallax in question relies on the fact that the one is not reducible to the other. This is the Žižekian lesson: Marx’s critique of political economy is not only a critique of classical political economy (Smith, Ricardo), but it is also a form of critique – a transcendental one – which allows us to articulate the elementary forms of social edifice under capitalism itself. And this ‘transcendental’ framework cannot be anything but philosophical. In fact, this is exactly what Marx said in the famous letter to Lassalle.[13]

In recent years, there has been renewed interest in rethinking the tenets of dialectical materialism. We know already from Hegel that the dialectic is among the sciences that have been misunderstood throughout most of their history, ancient and modern alike, including the metaphysics of modernity, as well as (what he calls) popular philosophy in general.[14] The point here is not to set the record straight, in the sense of which thinking is worthy of being called dialectical, but, following Hegel, to regard the infinite importance of the fact “that dialectic is once more being recognized  as necessary to reason.”[15]

There is, running in parallel, an ongoing discussion of the “original sin” in interpreting Hegel’s work. Although this is a rather futile academic exercise, one, nonetheless, cannot ignore two important moments. First, German philosopher Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus, in what is still considered to be one of the best exposés of German Idealism, entitled The Historical Development of Speculative Philosophy, from Kant to Hegel, proposed for the first time, perhaps even tentatively, to read Hegel’s dialectical process in the form of the infamous triad of: 1) thesis, 2) anti-thesis, and 3) synthesis. Or, as the German original has it: 1) in itself, 2) for itself, and 3) in and for itself.[16]

The other moment, perhaps a bit earlier than Chalybäus, concerns the split between the Old and Young Hegelians. Each group privileged a certain reading and what they considered to be the cornerstone of Hegelian system. The Old Hegelians appropriated the question of the State and Christianity, which the Young Hegelians considered to be the ideological remainders of a system, focusing instead on subjectivity and dialectics. The fate of Hegel, thus, cannot but puzzle everyone. If Hegel’s fate had been left solely to the interpretations by Bauer, Feuerbach or even the young Marx, he would have been forgotten long ago; perhaps, he would have had the fate of his immediate followers.

Isn’t Althusser’s take on Hegel, in a certain sense, the embodiment of these two positions? With regard – but not reducible – to his relation to Hegel only, it seems that he followed Chalybäus, who understood and conceptualized Hegel’s dialectical process as a movement within thesis and antithesis, culminating in synthesis. Thus, Althusser joins the already established trend of considering Hegel to be the philosopher of the actuality, rationalizing and justifying the present order.

Further, in Althusser’s view, Hegel is a philosopher of closure and the finite. His dialectical process is teleological. In his conception, the formula of the reconciliation of thought with the actuality (i.e. the equivalence of reality and actuality), or of the relation of philosophy to actuality, presents a foreclosure as far as transcending actual reality is concerned. The self-development of the Spirit always-already finds its reconciliation (or, limit) in the absolute.

Back in 1981, Beatrice Longuenesse wrote a path-breaking book on Hegel. Based on her PhD dissertation, Longuenesse made a dialectical reversal: her study of Hegel stemmed from her interest in Marx and especially in the Althusserian reading of his Capital. The path she took was determined by the philosophical discussions in the ‘60s and ‘70s in France, where the relation between Marx and Hegel was at the forefront of the debate. However, this is not merely a biographical or anecdotal aspect of the discussion. Due to the structure of this instalment of the R-Files, it will be impossible to discuss her book, but I will limit myself to putting forward two theses.

Longuenesse did an incredible work in theorizing the Hegelian concept of ground (although, she puts the ground in opposition to the concept, but this is a whole different story) and the logic of reflection in Hegel’s Science of Logic. Althusser’s reading, or what she would qualify as a misreading, of Hegel’s three forms of reflection, as an opposition which he understood under the heading of structural causality was, in Longuenesse’s view, already present in Hegel’s work. To put it in precise terms, for Longuenesse, the concept of structural causality, which Althusser’s put forward to oppose logic of reflection, is exactly what Hegel aimed at with his concept of ground. The second thesis a propos of Longuenesse’s book is critical. In Žižek’s parlance, this is due to the deflationist reading of Hegel, which, ever since the publication of her book, has become very popular among Hegelians.

Correlative to another French mode of reception of Hegel is Deleuze’s critique of Hegel as the thinker of synthetization. The point is that every Hegelian would be very pleased if his notoriously difficult philosophy could be read by the simple method of “thesis, antithesis, synthesis.” It would also comfort us with respect to contradictions: we would know that, at one level, they all get resolved, and our duty would be just to wait for that to happen. Yet, Hegel concludes his Science of Logic with the nightmarish concept: absolute idea.[17] There, he makes the crucial point of contradiction being unsurpassable: “the thought of contradiction is the essential moment of the concept.” In short, this is what the absolute idea is about.

But, where does Althusser come in here? Let’s see what he says on Hegel’s philosophy in his early work:

“Hegel’s philosophy presents itself not only as a corpus of truths, a finished whole we can consider in its place in the history of thought, but also as a totalizing whole; not only as an attempt to grasp reality, but also as the act by which truth is fulfilled or accomplished, sich vollzieht, achieves plenitude.”[18]

According to Althusser, Hegel cannot think the concept of over-determination. There is no place for it in the Hegelian system. Which is why, according to him, although often it has the appearance of being so, in Hegelian philosophy, the contradiction is never really over-determined. In short, Althusser puts over-determination as the concept opposing Hegel’s totality.

Departing from the distinction between Hegel’s and Marx’s dialectics, Althusser elaborates the relations between the structure and its elements. For Althusser, linear causality is associated with Descartes, whereas the expressive one is adopted and employed by Hegel. In turn, he introduces the concept of structural causality as one that analyzes the effect of the whole on the parts. Althusser argues that this concept is, in fact, “premised on the absolute condition that the whole is not conceived as a structure.” In this regard, the concept of structural causality overcomes the limits of the other two concepts. Analyzed from the perspective of structural causality, elements of the social whole are not extrinsic to the structural whole nor do they exist as a manifestation of the immanent basis of the structure. The relation between the elements and the structure is complementary in the sense that the latter determines the elements of the whole. This is what Althusser says, and it is worth quoting this paragraph:

Domination is not just an indifferent fact; it is a fact essential to the complexity itself. That is why complexity implies domination as one of its essentials: it is inscribed in its structure. So, to claim that this unity is not and cannot be the unity of a simple, original and universal essence is not, as those who dream of that ideological concept foreign to Marxism (“monism”) think, to sacrifice unity on the altar of “pluralism”—it is to claim something quite different: that the unity discussed by Marxism is the unity of complexity itself, that the mode of organization and articulation of complexity is, precisely, what constitutes its unity. It is to claim that the complex whole has the unity of a structure articulated in dominance.[19]

The radical difference between Marx’s and Hegel’s dialectics, according to Althusser, “must be manifest in its essence, that is, in its characteristic determinations and structures.”[20] To sum up, one needs to say that “basic structures of the Hegelian dialectic such as negation, the negation of the negation, the identity of opposites, ‘supersession’, the transformation of quantity into quality, contradiction, etc., have for Marx (in so far as he takes them over, and he takes over by no means all of them) a structure different from the structure they have for Hegel.”[21] It is for this reason that, for Althusser, the concept of over-determination is the point of opposition or difference between Marx and Hegel. According to him, the move from contradiction to totality in the Hegelian system would take place under a transcendentally guaranteed unity, a teleological passage from contingency to necessity, hiding the class dominance, which operated and structured this passage to begin with—the structured whole is “a” totality, a totality constituted “in dominance.” His proposal was that Marx’s theory of history include “unification-in-dominance” as part of the structure that was thereby constituted, rather than as a teleological and naturalized principle, so that the class character of structures could appear.

The Althusserian triad of expressive, linear, and structural causality perfectly corresponds to Hegel’s own triad of formal, real, and complete grounds. Hegel’s complete ground is exactly the complex structure, in which every determining instance is defined in relation to all other determinations. But, to go back again the tension between the over-determined structure and the Hegelian totality: he understood Hegel wrongly due to the fact that he reduced the Hegelian totality to the synchronicity that he named “expressive totality”. In Althusser’s reading of Hegel, every historical era is dominated by a certain spiritual principle, which expresses itself on all social levels and in all domains. And, it suffices to recall the temporal discord between Germany and France (i.e., the well-known fact of the difference in between political radicalism versus metaphysical thinking) which shows how, for Hegel, non-contemporaneity is a fundamental principle.

Marx bases materialism on (re)claiming the irreducibility of the thing or matter to the thinking itself. In the chapter of the Doctrine of Essence, from The Science of Logic, Hegel understands the matter as a constitutive part of thinking. In fact, for Hegel, thinking comes after being (“the owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the onset of dusk”[22]). On the other hand, for Marx, thinking comes before being and has primacy over it. And, as Žižek has argued, a Hegelian philosopher accepts the thesis that consciousness is opposed to the knowledge of an object, reality, et cetera. The relation between knowledge and consciousness is almost the incmopativle: knowledge is always external to the object of analysis, whereas consciousness concerns the very change in the status of object itself. This can be best exemplified by the case of the workers becoming proletarians. It is not a matter of objective conditions that turn a worker into a proletarian, as much as it is a matter of a worker perceiving him/herself to be in the ranks of the proletariat that changes their status. The lesson, therefore, is that the class belonging is not reduced to objective social analysis, but to the position one occupies in the class struggle itself.

Today’s late global capitalism functions differently from the time when Althusser came up with his concept of ideology. In psychoanalytic terms, again elaborated very often and in detail by Žižek, the change in the structure of ideology consists in the shift from the prohibitive authority of Law to the permissive and hedonist superego injunction. These are the consequences of change in the structure of ideology, which, at the same time, point out the contemporary limits of Althusser’s theory of the critique of ideology. According to Žižek, the failure consists in Althusser’s impossibility to think of the capitalist universe “structured like the Spinozan absolute, i.e., the reemergence of Spinoza as the paradigmatic thinker of late capitalism.”[23] In other words, “global consumerist capitalism is in its basic structure Spinozan, not Kantian: it actually appears as a flow of absolute immanence, in which multiple effects proliferate, with no cuts of negativity/castration interrupting this flow.”[24] But how should we read this?

According to Žižek’s thesis, capitalism appears as if there were no transcendence—as if the causal interaction of parts/affections at ground level were all there was to it, with power always emerging as a restrictive force, extraneous to the flow of productive life. Just like Hardt and Negri argue throughout their work, but especially in Multitude,[25] social life is a creative, immanent thing, and property is a force alien to it, because social life, in its being, has no transcendent limit. However, there is a crucial difference between the appearance and functioning, to which we should be attentive: this is how capitalism appears, not how it works, because its logic has presuppositions and internal limits. So, even though the appearance of global capitalism is Spinozist, from a critical stance, we can reveal the Hegelian (and Kantian) sub-structure of its functioning.



[1] Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), p.6

[2] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1977), p.71

[3] Slavoj Žižek is right when he argues that it is difficult to find a more “arrogant” philosopher than Spinoza, “whose Ethics claims to reveal the inner working of God-Nature – if nothing else, it can be shown that here Spinoza is much more “arrogant” than Hegel”, Slavoj Žižek, Incontince of the Void: Economico-Philosophical Spandrels (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2017), p.10. In his “Mr. Cogito tells of the temptation of Spinoza”, the poet Zbigniew Herbert aims at the same path as Žižek. This beautiful poem is an ironical ‘examination’ of Spinoza’s work, Zbigniew Herbert, Collected Poems 1956-1988 (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2007) p.314-316

[4] Anonymous, “Dr. Althusser”, Radical Philosophy 1975, 12:44

[5] According to some of Althusser’s collaborators, the publication of Gérard Lebrun’s La Patience du Concept: essai sur discours hégélien (1972) made Althusser re-think his reading of Hegel.

[6] The manuscripts of most of the recent publications can be found at Althusser’s archive in the Institut mémoires de l’éditions contemporaine (Imec) in Saint-German-la-Blanche-Hebre, located near Cain, France.

[7] Louis Althusser, History and Imperialism: Writings, 1963-1986, London: Polity, 2020

[8] Louis Althusser, Philosophy for Non-Philosophers, London: Bloomsbury/London, 2017

[9] Louis Althusser, How to be a Marxist in Philosophy, London: Bloomsbury/London, 2017

[10] Ultimately, Althusser admitted that he produced a very strange Marx, cf. Louis Althusser, The Future Lasts Forever, The New Press: New York, 1995.

[11] Karl Marx, “Marx to Engels, 16 January 1858,” https: // /58_01_16.htm

[12] Ibid.

[13] In a letter to Ferdinand Lassalle in early 1858, Marx declared that ‘The work I am presently concerned with is a Critique of Economic Categories or, if you like, a critical exposé of the system of the bourgeois economy. It is at once an exposé and, by the same token, a critique of the system.’

[14] W. F. Hegel, Science of Logic, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, p. 742

[15] Ibid., p.742-3

[16] Although the origins of this triad can be traced back to Fichte, who in his Outline of the Doctrine of Knowledge literally talks about the trinity of thesis, synthesis and antithesis.

[17] Jacques Derrida is another French philosopher almost obsessively dismissed Hegel. In The Ends of Man, he writes: “Absolute spirit: the unity, that is in itself and for itself, of the objectivity of the spirit and of its ideality or its concept, the unity producing itself eternally, spirit in its absolute truth—absolute spirit,” Jaques Derrida, “The Ends of Man”, in Margins of Philosophy, Brighton: The Harvester Press Ltd., 1982, p.74.

[18] Louis Althusser, The Spectre of Hegel: Early Writings, London/Verso, 2014, p.23

[19] Louis Althusser, For Marx, London/Verso, 2005, p.202-203

[20] Ibid, p.93.

[21] Ibid., p.93-94

[22] G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, p.23

[23] Slavoj Žižek, Incontinence of the Void: Economico-Philosophical Spandrels, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2017, p.10

[24] Ibid. p.201

[25] Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.